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Literacy Special - Use it, abuse it, but don't let 'em lose it

You can't fix the English language in aspic but students need to learn how - and when - to use it correctly, argues Ruth Owen

You can't fix the English language in aspic but students need to learn how - and when - to use it correctly, argues Ruth Owen

We are all aware that language changes and most of us recognise the inevitability of that change. Even Dr Samuel Johnson discovered, during his mammoth task of writing a dictionary in an attempt to "fix" the language, that it is as impossible to "enchain syllables" as it is to "lash the wind". Words flood into the language from several sources: new inventions, popular culture and an increasingly globalised world.

As English teachers we need to be aware of this state of flux while simultaneously ensuring that all students learn to use Standard English. There cannot be many teachers of English (and other subjects) who have not sighed over such errors as "could of", "would of", "more better", "he ran quick" and "off" when "of" is required. It goes on, especially with "it's" when it's "its" that should be used.

Over the years colleagues have provided a broad range of opinion on deviations from Standard English. Some say it does not matter, confidently stating that "fussing" over accuracy represses creativity. Others fret and are not sure what to think, and some are absolutely against any deviation from Standard English whatsoever.

My own feeling is that Standard English matters; it matters enormously. My reasons are nothing to do with believing, as some do, that the language should be preserved as it is at all costs. It cannot be and it would be foolish to try. English has never been "pure" anyway, and as the linguist Jean Aitchison pointed out, those who regard English as a "crumbling castle" that has, through its users' ill-treatment, been damaged and is now far removed from the glories of its past reveal the very opposite of what they intend - an ignorance about the evolution of English.

It is essential to teach Standard English. If we do not, we are putting young people, especially those already disadvantaged, at a further disadvantage. Whatever the perceived rights or wrongs, employers want someone who can write clearly and unambiguously; understandably so, as businesses wish to uphold their reputations in an ever-more-competitive marketplace. If the wrong "there", "their" or "they're" is placed in a sentence, confusion will be the result. The same, too, if an apostrophe is used to adorn any word that ends in an "s" rather than to convey omission or possession. The adjective and adverb need special attention just now as "more better", "bestest" and "run quick" creep into the language.

Maybe these recent threats to Standard English will one day become standard themselves, but until that happens teachers must point out that such phrases are a deviation from standard usage. Frequently, though, language does its own housekeeping and one area where this is happening is with the past tense of the verb "to text". It is quite rare in speech now to hear, "She texted me" with the "-ed" ending pronounced and more usual to hear "She text me" - it is simply easier to say, as is the modern pronunciation of knee and knock without the "k".

Years ago, when I was driving home from a very long day's teaching of A- level English, an item came on the radio about attitudes towards English teaching. The head of a school in Lambeth, South London, was claiming that he was passionate about raising the aspirations of his students as he saw that as a way out of poverty. He "loved" the diversity and inventiveness of the language he heard them use. What really mattered for his students, he continued, was that they should be able to express themselves on paper, and if they wrote as they spoke then that was fine.

The interviewer, in the most ingenious and subtle way, asked his interviewee if he took that attitude with his own children. The answer was a resounding "No". Of course, the unspoken conclusion, the trap into which the passionate-for-his-students head had fallen headlong, was that it was OK to allow hundreds of young people from South London to write as they spoke, with all the non-standard usage that entailed, but it was not OK to allow his own children to do that as it would not be considered acceptable in an application to a Russell Group university.

If we are in education to improve the lot of all our students then it is crucial that they are able to use Standard English, in both the spoken and written form. From an early age we need to point out the differences between local dialects, the language used within a social group for covert prestige and the way in which language is used to interact on social networking sites and in text messages.

Young people can be impressively inventive and amusing in creating codes of communication. We use language all the time and so you have the perfect hook for your students to start thinking about its very nature. Standard English is just another code to be used when the context demands it.

Tell your students to consider language in terms of a linguistic wardrobe; just as you select your clothes for certain occasions, so you do the same with language. Everyone understands that a tuxedo or a cocktail dress would look out of place at a football match. Gather words and phrases from your local dialect and from other areas. Great enjoyment is to be found, too, in exploring colloquialisms and their edgier relative, slang.

Is it impossible to express yourself if you get bogged down in grammar? Absolutely not. Understanding the nuts and bolts of grammar is liberating and allows for excellent creative expression. All students must have the wherewithal to be able to use Standard English.

Ruth Owen is an associate lecturer in English at Hillsborough College, Sheffield. She is also a novelist, short-story writer and freelance writer.

What else?

Key stage 1: Big writing

Literacy Miss shares ideas for encouraging pupils to develop their writing.


Key stage 2: Writing targets

Motivate children to improve their writing with caroline.a. moore's target handouts.


Key stage 3: Exclamation stations

Pupils won't be able to avoid punctuation rules once you decorate your classroom walls with stephrenn's posters.


Key stage 4: Painting with words

Try lemara1982's PowerPoint for activities to inspire writing.


Key stage 5: English roots

For a thorough introduction to the history of the English language, try nicola.conway's resources.


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